Recently, our dog died. Well, one of the dogs, anyway. One of the two labs that were a part of our marriage for the last decade, and who are now a part of our divorce. Max, the king of our world in so many ways, is gone. He died right over there on that Target rug in front of the propane stove, his breathes sliding away from him in a cavalcade of morning sunbeams. There was a strange beauty to it, even if that sounds weird to say.
He was majestic and graceful and chill in life. And apparently, dude knew exactly how to die, too: with dignity and calm; one last parting gift for the humans who loved him. My hero, the best friend I ever had.
Milo is still here though. He seems normal so far, running around with no idea that he’ll never see his partner-in-crime again.
I set my eight-month-old son, Charlie, down in his car seat and prop his bottle up on a blanket on his chest. Milo and Charlie don’t get it. But it occurs to me in the moment I walk back into that room that ol’ Charlie will never get it and sadly, Milo eventually will. My youngest son will retain no memories of Max licking his face or Max following him on one of his first crawls. There will be nothing except what we tell him and everyone knows that you either knew a dog or you didn’t. Charlie will have his chance to love a dog hard someday. But the dog won’t be Max.
My two other kids — Violet and Henry — these two loved a dog who is now missing. That morning, before I knew, I had pulled into Monica’s driveway with the three kids to take Violet to her bus stop, and I had been in an okay mood. I was jazzed on my coffee and listening to Howard Stern while the three amigos sat in the back, chattering and poking each other the way they always do. But in an instant everything went south when Monica emerged from her house, that look on her face that people get when they need to tell you bad news.
Certain days start out one way then go down a whole different trail than you ever saw coming. Max was sick, Max was dying. We both knew that. But now the status quo was shattered and Max was needing to go. Today. Now. Take-the-kids-to-your-mom’s-and-come-back-here-as-soon-as-you-can-because-the-vet-is-coming, that kind of now.
“Guys,” Monica starts in. “Violet and Henry, do you remember how mom and dad told you this morning that Max was pretty sick and that he needed to go to the dog hospital today?”
Four kid eyes move as one from Sponge Bob to their mama.
“Well, I have to tell you something. Max was very sick. And he died today.”
I stare at their faces and I want to punch a hole in the wall. Not my Zen-est moment but who cares? This sucks bad. They’re gonna bawl. They’re gonna lose their minds. This is going to be tough.
I brace myself.
Henry looks at his mom and it’s that look kids give when they’re trying to figure out if you’re messing with them or not. Violet’s sweet lips curl up at the end and she smiles a tiny smile. I’m not expecting that.
“Max,” Violet says his name. “Did he die?”
“Yes,” Monica responds, her voiced dredged in calm. “Max was old and it was his time to die.”
Then Henry starts in with his questions, “Did he doy insoide or outsoide?”
Monica tells him inside. He can barely wait though. Henry’s wires start sizzling and the questions are like pee that has to come out. The answers to his questions, they’re not nearly as important to him.
“Did … did … did,” He searches for the words as I rub Milo’s nose. I watch Violet’s confused grin. Time goes by. “Did he … did he … did he … did Max doy for real or did he just pweetend doy?”
We talk then. All of us. Mom, dad, the kids, we talk and they ask funny questions and pretty cool questions and, once again, for a day with some strange twists in it, in walks some kind of unexpected beauty in the way these two kids of ours handle the news that their buddy is gone.
“Is Max in Heaven with Jesus and all the dead people?” Violet asks. I have no idea if he is, and I doubt Monica has gotten any calls from on-high telling her that Heaven is real and Max has arrived or anything like that, but screw it. We tell our daughter and our son that Max is in Heaven. Why not? Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t.
They ask crazy stuff and poignant stuff and I want to cry but they’re not crying so I figure I ought to wait a few minutes until I get back in the Honda, drive back up the dark valley to my place. They ask their questions and we answer them and the whole thing takes maybe six or seven minutes and I can see that the kids are alright. Or as alright as they can be. Then Monica tells them to come in close and she says something.
“Violet and Henry, before Max closed his eyes for the last time and went to sleep, he made sure to tell me that he wanted to give something to each of you, because he loved you guys so so much!”
“Max said, ‘This one is for Violet.'”
My ex-wife hands my daughter a little Hello Kitty sticker book. Violet beams.
“And Max said, ‘This one is for Henry.'”
It’s Batman. It’s perfect. Henry stares at it like he’s holding a baby eagle in his grubby mitts.
A few minutes later and I’m moving out the door. Everything is so raw, so surreal. In the middle of divorcing, we’ve had to dive into our vat of precious memories. But even that doesn’t make us sit down and drink a beer together or anything. This is her night with the kids and so I’m off back home.
I kiss Violet’s hair. She’s back to watching Sponge Bob, the sticker book in her hand. I kiss Henry’s hair. He’s at the dining room table drawing a picture. I see what it is.
“It’s for Mahmmy,” he tells me, in tones that warn: keep your fat face shut and don’t ruin the surprise.
Rising out of the boring white of a piece of computer paper, I see the black of a dog and the red of his collar and I understand instantly that Max is back. Crayon Max. For “Mahmmy.”
I get the hell out of there just as the first happy/sad teardrop leaps off the cliff of my eye.
Image courtesy of Monica Bielanko